About Hilda Clark
Hilda Clark grew up in an affluent Quaker family in the village of Street in Somerset. Her family had founded Clarks' Shoes in the nineteenth century. In the face of prejudice against working women, Hilda qualified as a doctor.
Hilda was 33 when war broke out. A strong pacifist, she was firmly opposed to the war and appalled by the suffering it caused. She was instrumental in setting up the Friends War Victims Relief Committee and provided humanitarian assistance to civilians caught up in the war.
Not killing people at present
Hilda's letters from France contain almost no reference to the reactions she received as a female doctor, despite this being unusual at the time. At a time when most people had never travelled in a car, Hilda further challenged gender roles by regularly driving one. Here's one letter from May 1915, sent to her friend Edith in London.
My auto wheel is not quite reliable yet. I had let a rather inexperienced young chauffeur look after it for me, which was not altogether wise. Something went wrong and it finally fell off going to Bar-le-Duc the other day, resulting in stoppage. I set to work to take the auto wheel off this cycle–when some Paris motor buses came along and I was soon surrounded by twenty willing soldiers who quickly took it off and carted it to Bar-le-Duc for me.
I hunted for the lost parts in vain, helped by a delightful young soldier, rather shy and very nice-mannered, who explained that he was a schoolmaster and his wife was a schoolmistress, and they lived near Fontainebleau.
He was with the supply department in a village nearby and had been riding on the bus to remind himself of Paris. He was fair and ruddy-faced–more like an Englishman than a Frenchman; one was glad he would not be killing people just at present anyway.
I bicycled on to Bar-le-Duc. I found that they had discovered the missing part lodged in a corner of the machine and got it all right for me. They filled up with essence and oil and I got back in great style.
I have had the most extraordinary luck. There was a spare wheel with the car, but the first puncture I had was on a bad stone which buckled the rim and I have gone 2,500 miles since without a spare till I had a new wheel from England two days ago.
In that time I had eight punctures and burst tyres, never in a place where I was forced to change the tyre myself, although I have practically never had a passenger who could help and I go long distances on lonely roads where cars rarely pass - and the next day after the new wheel came I had a puncture on the most lonely part of the road when I was driving patients to Bettancourt!
Of course with a spare wheel I was moving again in less than ten minutes - got the tyre put right on the spare as soon as I got into the garage, and today had another tyre burst in a little village miles from anywhere!
As this letter makes clear, Hilda came into contact with soldiers very often. Pacifists have always differed in how to interact with soldiers; some avoid them, some condemn them, some are so keen not to be seen as criticising them that they put the blame for war solely on politicians.
How can we act on our principles when we meet people whose actions we oppose, without descending into personal hatred? How should people who campaign for peace interact with military personnel today?
This is an extract from a letter from Hilda Clark to Edith Pye. It can be found in War and its Aftermath: Letters from Hilda Clark (Friends' Book Centre, 1956), edited by Edith Pye.
As Quaker relief work in France extended, Hilda chose to move from where she had been working to Sermaize, where life was slightly calmer but facilities more basic despite increasing levels of illness in the area. In one of her last surviving letters from the war years, she said that some things are too complicated to explain in writing.
As the year went on Hilda found herself in open conflict with the people administering the Friends War Victims Relief Committee at the Quaker central offices in London.
Hilda was busy working with refugee mothers and children in France. In July she wrote to her parents in Somerset to congratulate them on their golden wedding anniversary. She apologised for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely.
Hilda continued to work with refugee children after her return to France.
Hilda saw her work as a form of pacifism in action but was concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription.
Despite rejoicing in aspects of her work, Hilda's letters from France in 1915 make several references to struggling with negative emotions. It's not only the suffering around her that gets her down – she also seems dismayed with the pro-war sentiments coming from Britain.
Hilda, a Quaker doctor from Somerset, was working in France with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. She had re-established the group to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the war. This humanitarian response unit worked with civilians close to the front line, offering practical support on the basis of a common humanity.
In the spring of 1915 she wrote home to her friend Edith Pye.
Hilda was seeing extreme suffering in France. Continuing to work as a doctor and to organise other pacifist volunteers, she expressed her feelings in another letter to her friend Edith.
Amidst fears of German troops reaching the town, Hilda's tasks seem to have included keeping everyone calm, as shown by an early letter to her friend Edith.
It was October before Hilda and her comrades obtained permission from the French and British authorities to travel to France to support civilian victims of war.
In today's entry we saw Hilda interacting with a soldier while being glad that he was “not killing people at present”. Not all soldiers were uncritical of the war or the army leadership. As the war went on, many soldiers became more outspoken, either against the war itself or of the way it was being conducted.